Wear and Tear

One thing I’m still not good about with flying quadcopters is checking my drones before and after I fly them. I’ve built up some excellent habits around taking care of my batteries. I don’t charge faster than 1C. I try to charge as close to when I’m going to fly as I can. I charge or discharge batteries back to their storage voltage when I’m done. But somehow I have a blind spot when it comes to the quad itself.

Case in point is the picture above, which was taken during a flying session after I’d already flown one battery. Possibly the nut was still on before I flew but it had to have been pretty loose to come off completely while I was flying. The part that really illustrates my bad habit though, is that I was putting a new battery on to fly again and only noticed the canopy was loose then I was setting it down to take off. Inspecting it then I realized that the nut on the bolt that secured the flight controller had also nearly come off as well. You can see it on the picture below just to the right of the standoff connecting the canopy to the frame.

Now likely the only really bad thing that would have happened if I had taken off with it is that the video feed would have had a lot of jitter in it with the loose canopy. Even if the nut on the flight controller bolt had come off during flight, there’s still three other bolts securing it down, and the nut itself is nylon so nothing would have shorted out or been damaged. But it’s a symptom of a bad habit of mine not to pay more attention to my equipment, and it’s a bit like driving without getting your oil changed.

I just don’t normally think about the wear and tear that’s happening while I’m flying. Once I put one together and start using it, I’m always surprised when it breaks or needs upkeep or stops working as a result just regular use. Obviously after crashing into something I would expect there to be damage, but I don’t think about what all of the vibration is doing to the fasteners on the quad while it’s in the air.

Besides this incident, I’ve also wrapped up flying before and noticed I was missing a screw from one of the motors. Which would be okay if it was because I was doing an inspection after flying, but it was just happenstance just like this instance with the canopy.

I’ve gotten a little better since then about checking the quads over before I fly, but it’s not really become an ingrained habit yet. I’ve considered making up pre- and post-flight checklists to go through, but that really feels like overkill for flying tiny little quads around. I still might at least for the short term just to help get the habit ingrained. Maybe once I have a crash or a motor drops off midair, I’ll start remembering to check things before I fly.

Flying in Public

I don’t know if I’m just lucky or if I’m basing my expectations too much off of news stories and horror stories that I’ve read online about drone pilots having problems when flying in public, but so far my experiences flying in public have all been positive.

I spent quite a lot of time flying around my yard over the summer. If found that the best spot for me to stand for the best signal was at the bottom of my driveway facing the house. This gave me the least amount of breakup flying behind my house even when going through my backyard low to the ground. Of course this also put me right out next to the street, so I was expecting to get a lot of comments and questions from neighbors but barely got any. I had one neighbor mention that it looked like fun when I first started doing it. The same one ask me a few weeks later asked if I didn’t get bored flying in the same place every day. I’d occasionally heard people commenting on it as they walked by, but always in passing, and never had anyone express concern about what I was doing.

I suppose part of the difference in expectation versus reality was what I was flying. Most drone stories you read about are for the larger photographic drones. When I was first outside was with my 30 gram whoop which was smaller than the palm of my hand. Later in the summer it was my 72 gram toothpick which was the size of my hand. Neither of which is especially loud or dangerous looking. My 3″ Acrobrat I barely flew at home, because I wasn’t comfortable flying it in such close proximity all of the houses, cars, and people around me. I’m curious if I had flown it more if anyone would have had concerns about it.

I like the to think that the main reason was how I was flying. Standing out by the road definitely made it apparent who was flying the drone, so it wasn’t like I was trying to spy on people or be sneaky at all. I also tried to always be aware of where the quad would go in the event that it had a failsafe. I didn’t fly over people’s houses or backyards, and I avoided sidewalks unless one of my kids was outside to spot for me or the time of day or weather meant there wasn’t likely going to be anyone walking by. That worked pretty well for me with one exception.

Flying low to the ground is fun as you really get a sense of how fast you’re going, plus it’s good practice for managing your throttle. Normally when I’m flying low I’ll stick to the edge of the street or yards. Because I’m moving so fast and the video resolution on my quad camera’s isn’t great, there’s a real possibility that I’ll hit something or someone before I even know they’re there. When I can though I like using the sidewalks, especially in the evenings when I can see the shadow of the quad running along the ground in front of me. I like being able to zip up the sidewalk and fly by where I’m standing. It’s just a surreal experience to pass by yourself and hear the quad zoom by even though you’re standing still.

I had no problems all summer until one day this fall when the weather wasn’t all that nice and I figured I’d be clear to use the sidewalk. I had just flown past where I was standing when I realized there was a lady walking up the street and I took off away from the sidewalk. She was still ten or fifteen feet away, but close enough to scare me. It actually wasn’t until I saw her and took off that I heard her startle. Apparently she thought I was running an RC car and wasn’t expecting it to zoom off into the air. Even with this sort of close call, she wasn’t angry or anything and kept on with her walk, but I still felt bad afterwards.

Besides yard flying I’ve been to a nearby field a few times where there’s usually people walking or riding bikes. But I’ve never had anyone express concerns there either. I’m standing out in the open and usually there flying so far up that most people don’t even see it. Ive heard a few people talking as they walk by where they’re looking around for what I’m flying, although I’ve never had anyone stop and ask. Again all of the comments when people do see it are that it looks like fun or looks cool.

I’ve also flown both my toothpick and my Acrobrat at my kids’ nearby elementary school and usually there’s no one around. A few times there’s been parents that are walking by to the playground with their kids. Typically if it’s moms they just ignore me, when it’s dad’s I usually hear a comment about how cool it looks. 

All on all, I have to say I’ve had nothing but positive experiences flying an FPV quad in public. I’m looking forward to doing more park flying this coming spring and summer than I did last year. I think as long as I continue to practice safe habits like I have been, I should be fine. 

My First Year in FPV

I had a good first year getting into the FPV hobby. This time last year I was flying my original AcroBee V2, well trying to anyway. It took me a few days to get enough of a feel for the sticks to be able to take off without slamming into the ceiling and let off the throttle without slamming into the floor. I certainly wouldn’t have guess that by now I would have multiple quads and be comfortable flying outside and doing tricks like dives and power loops.

While it started with the NewBeeDrone brushed whoop kit, I don’t think I would still be as interested in flying if I hadn’t gotten my HX100 toothpick for yard flying. Doing laps in the house and then the backyard with the whoop was fun but it started to get monotonous fairly quickly. I also started to run into issues with the aerodynamics, or lack thereof, on the ducted props when I started trying to do dives. Also just the lack of power and responsiveness of the brushed motors. Picking up the HX100 was perfect for me to really start to do more with my outside flight time, without having too much power, noise, or weight like the Acrobrat that I built.

Which brings me to the second major milestone for me for the year. For about the first six months, I was basing everything I was doing and trying to do one information I was getting from other pilots on line, mostly from YouTube or Reddit. The problem with that was most of those pilots were flying full-sized quads, not micros, and they were all flying in larger spaces than I hard access to on the average week night. That’s why I ended up building a 3″ quad to begin with because the conventional wisdom was that anything smaller than that wouldn’t really fly as well as a 5″ quad. So I went with that not realizing, that part of what that meant was the speed and power involved, neither of which I really needed for the smaller spaces I was normally flying in. So figuring that out and getting to the point where I had enough experience with flying and building quads that I could make better decisions on what I needed for my specific situation was a big accomplishment for me.

I had a lot of minor milestones just related to flying this year. Getting comfortable inside, then outside, then learning tricks. Flips, rolls, dives, and yaw spins all came pretty easily to me with some practice. I’m still working on really making them precise but I have the basics. Trying to do power loops or lookbacks though were a struggle. Anything that required me to be inverted I found very disorienting and frightening. Even just trying to chop up a flip into a pair of 180’s required overriding all of the muscle memory I’d built up. I’m better with those things now, for power loops I found it much easier to practice when I started going to nearby parks and fields where I had more space. Learning a new maneuver like that is tough in smaller spaces.

So now that Christmas has come and gone, I’m nearly back where I started. I’m looking at a similar stack of quad parts that I got for presents. I’ll be building a new whoop to fly over the next few months until spring comes and I can get back outside on a regular basis, but this time there’s soldering involved instead of just screws and plugs. I’m using brushed motors instead of brushless. I’m also not stressing about all of the configuration and tweaking that I’ll need to do.

I’m looking forward to another fun year in the FPV hobby.

Quad Troubleshooting

I actually still haven’t fixed my toothpick quad yet. Originally I wasn’t in any hurry to get it replaced and I was hoping to try that antenna fix as well, but I haven’t made the time to do it. Between the holidays and wrapping up a lot of work tasks before going on my end of the year vacation, I really didn’t have the motivation to sit down at my hobby table and take it apart even though once I did I’d probably have it all done in under an hour. But for now I wanted to talk about the most frustrating part of the hobby for me, and that’s when things just stop working or at least start having problems.

About two months months into flying my HX100 toothpick daily for about 30 minutes using six batteries, I suddenly started having an issue with my video signal going to static and then cutting out when I’d take off. Doing a visual inspection didn’t show anything. I tried taking off a few more times and then just holding the quad and moving it around by hand and noticed that any kind of vibration would cause it to go out again. It sucks when a flight session is cut short by a technical problem like this, but that’s one advantage of being able to fly at home so easily, at least I hadn’t had to drive somewhere or hike out to a remote spot only to have to leave early.

So I took the quad to my hobby table to open it up. The last time I had a problem with it the answer was pretty obvious as the receiver antenna literally fell of when I took the canopy off. Which was nice because I immediately knew what the problem was and just had to order a replacement. This time unfortunately there was no such obvious sign of what was wrong. The VTX antenna didn’t look loose at all, it was securely soldered to the board. All of the solder connections for the wires connecting the VTX to the flight controller looked solid. The wiring harness looked okay, there was some damage to it that I had noticed and fixed with electrical tape a few weeks prior when I replaced the carbon fiber frame, but there was no new damage. I tried wiggling the wires when the battery was plugged in and didn’t see any issues in my goggles from the VTX signal.

There’s another difficulty when troubleshooting problems from the bench. VTX’s general a lot of heat as in they can burn you as well as just fry themselves if left on for too long on a high power setting. This isn’t normally an issue since the expectation that they’re on a quad flying through the air so there’s a lot of cooling from air flow. When inside on a table though that’s not the case. So every time I tested it out even when I had it cranked down to 25 mW which is the lowest setting, I had a limited window if I didn’t want to ruin the VTX.

So at this point I was unsure what to do. There was nothing obviously wrong with it that I could try to fix with solder or tape. I’ve learned that this is the point where I have to start swapping components, so I ordered a replacement VTX. They’re not super expensive at $15 from online vendors like RaceDayQuads or Amazon, but still not something I wanted to be replacing often.

While I waited I decided to try to cut out the damaged sections of the wiring harness that connected the VTX to the FC and solder the wires together. Which unfortunately didn’t make any difference but it was at least some good soldering practice. It also confirmed that it wasn’t the wiring. That left either the antenna or the board which amounted to the same thing since they were soldered together.

I even ended up cutting away the heatshrink protecting the antenna and didn’t see any damage to the wire itself. So my guess at this stage was something on the board itself had gone bad. Maybe a surface mounted component was loose or some component was damaged internally.

Thankfully when the new VTX showed up in the mail a few days later, I had no problems getting the new wiring harness soldered to the flight controller and getting the quad back in good working order. Or at least I didn’t think I had any problems until I noticed that I couldn’t adjust the VTX band and channel using my radio. It wasn’t enough to keep me from flying thankfully, but it is annoying knowing that the quad wasn’t in 100% working order.

It’s actually a problem I still haven’t fixed. I even have another VTX and a replacement flight controller as well, since the issue might be on either end, and given the FC had quite a few hours of flight time on it, it’s probably that end where the issues is. It’s what happens when I know I can just fly something instead of being forced to take it apart an troubleshoot it again. I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve put off fixing the motor, since I have to take it apart enough to do that, that I might as well work on fixing the VTX issue as well.

Crashes and Quad Repair

In quad versus pole, the pole always wins.

It was decent weather over the weekend for Indiana in December, meaning that it wasn’t completely overcast, windy, and miserable. It was still cold, somewhere in the mid 30’s, but I didn’t want to pass up no wind and a little bit of sun for getting some outside flying in. I charged up half a dozen 2S batteries for my toothpick quad, and a couple of batteries for my boys’ RC cars, and we headed over to their elementary school which is only five minutes away.

I got the boys’ cars setup and they went off to do donuts and ramp off of the playground equipment, while I fired up my radio and goggles and put the first battery in.

It was a little rough getting started. I’m going to blame it on adjusting to the cold. I don’t wear gloves when I fly. I’ve tried it a couple of times and it just messes with my muscle memory too much, even with a thin pair. I had a couple of near misses with trees and playground equipment at first, but by the end of the first battery I was feeling pretty good.

Flying at the school is nice for a couple of reasons. There’s the obvious one that it’s a bigger space with a nice large parking lot so I can keep the throttle more open and really get some speed up as I fly around. There’s also a lot more stuff to play with too. There’s light poles, trees, and playground equipment to fly around and over and through. So it makes it a lot more fun to do proximity flying than what I can do when I go down to the field near my home to fly where I do more loops, flips, and rolls since there aren’t many obstacles.

The second battery started out much better than the first as I was getting familiarized with the space. I made a couple of passes through the playground. I played around with following Thing One’s RC truck as he drove around a couple of trees, and then I took off to make a big looping pass through the playground. I misjudged my line through the obstacles though and pinged of a metal pole. It was a hard hit too as it was enough to cause the flight controller to reboot. I wasn’t worried though, I’ve had hard crashes before with my HX100 and it’s rarely had a problem.

Once the FC came back up, I armed it and tried to take off, but the quad just spun a bit and wouldn’t take off. I disarmed again and took off my goggles and put my radio down to head over. I figured there was some mulch from the playground stuck in a motor or maybe on of the receiver antennas got twisted and was blocking a prop. Both of those things have happened before in a crash, which usually takes a couple of seconds to fix and then I’m back in the air again. This time it was a bit more severe.

This is actually the second time I’ve broken a motor. The last time was in October, so I’m averaging one motor every two months. The October break was some a head-on crash into a heavy tree branch that broke the front right motor. Somehow this time I broke the right rear one. I can’t tell from the video playback, but I must have yawed a little as I hit the pole. It was a pretty hard hit too. I noticed when I got home and inspected the damage that I bent the motor bell and damaged some of the magnets.

I’m not sure if it was just a hard hit against a metal pole, or if the cold had anything to do with it. I feel like I’ve had some equally hard crashes flying my yard, but those collisions usually involve tree branches or wooden fences and not heavy duty playground equipment.

So that put an early end to my flying for the day. It was cold enough out though that my boys didn’t last much longer than that anyway, so I probably wouldn’t have gotten more than another battery in anyway. Just now I have to replace the motor.

It’s not hard to do since I’m using plugs and not direct soldering the motors to the flight controller, it just requires more disassembly than I want to do. I do have to take the canopy off and take the flight controller out because of the tight space that the motor wires and plug run through. I think the last time I did it, it took me a bit more than 20 minutes to do. At least I already have the parts, since these 1103 motors come in sets of four instead of being sold individually, and they’re interchangeable so I don’t need a specific motor at each position.

To be honest, I need to take it apart and do some work on it anyway. The antenna has had a couple of prop strikes on it, and I need to either switch back to some shorter tri-blade props that can’t reach the antenna, or make a change to the canopy so that the antenna stays above the props. I have an idea to drill a small hole through the back of the canopy a few millimeters above where the antenna currently sits so I can feed the antenna out at an angle. That way the canopy itself will keep the antenna from getting down into where the props can hit it.